Friday, December 16, 2005

Walking along the borders of political incorrectness

I had a phone call the other day from a former colleague. She's retired now, she says, at home with her two young children and very, very happy about it. I told her how jealous I am of her. They say youth is wasted on the young; well, I say retirement is wasted on the old. If she can retire now, more power to her.

"Julie" (not her real name) was not just calling to gloat, however. She had a legal question, one prompted by a tragedy involving a family friend. Oddly enough, I was able to answer the question with someting other than, "It depends" (which is, of course, the lawyer's usual one-size-fits-all response to almost anything. It is not, by the way, an acceptable answer to "Do I look OK in this?" It is a response to almost any legal question. For personal questions, you're on your own.)

After answering Julie's question we made small talk for a few minutes. I told her how lucky her kids are to have her at home with them.

And Julie bristled. I think I felt a distinct chill in my ear -- the ear pressed to the telephone receiver.

Julie is young enough that stay-at-home moms were rare when she was young. I don't think her mom stayed home with Julie. And it is an article of feminist faith that children are not harmed in any way by their mothers working outside the home, just as it is an article of faith among the Phyllis Schlaflys of the world that the children of working mothers will be juvenile delinquents or worse.

But I didn't say either one of those things. I said Julie's kids were lucky to have Julie home with them, and that's all I meant. Julie is a very bright, capable individual. And a good lawyer. Before she "retired" she tried a medical malpractice case to verdict and won a $2 million judgment. In fact, the jury in her case, like the movie jury in Paul Newman's The Verdict, gave her more than she asked for. (And her case was much better prepared than Paul Newman's.) Children benefit from being around bright, capable people. That's one reason why working couples often hire foreign exchange students as nannies. (Some fathers may harbor additional, ulterior fantasy reasons, but they act on these fantasies at their extreme peril.) The college students are usually bright, capable people and the children often flourish in their care. And the students love the kids and the kids love their nannies.

Nor did I say that all kids benefit when their moms stay home. Moms who eat bon bons and watch the soaps (there must still be some of these since the soaps are still on the air) presumably provide little intellectual stimulation for their children. ("Go put a tape in, my soap's on!")

But -- and I don't think I'm crossing the line here -- no one should love a kid more than its parents. So if a bright, capable person is available to take care of the kids and that person is also the kid's parent, I think the kids will benefit. So I still think Julie's kids are lucky, even if she misunderstood what I was trying to say.

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